Friday, August 17, 2012

My year of weddings

Readers might recall a column I wrote about buying a dress for the wedding of my eldest son. Three months in advance of the big day, I went shopping for a dress only to discover that special occasion dresses need to be ordered 6 months in advance. This led me to reflect on weddings as an industry, where the focus is the party, not the marriage ceremony. Since I wrote that column, my family has celebrated two more weddings. Within a ten-month period, our eldest son, our daughter, and a sister tied the knot. I have come to associate certain symbols with each wedding.

A wedding is a journey

"Two Bright Coloured Suitcases and Sun"

One of our weddings was a destination wedding of sorts. Although it did not take place in an exotic, foreign location, it required travel for the majority of guests, who spent the weekend together at a resort. The symbol I associate with this wedding is a suitcase. While a suitcase is an unusual symbol for a wedding, I think it an appropriate one because a suitcase conjures up images of a journey. Marriages, like journeys, are full of adventure and discovery.

The marriage journey takes a couple to unexpected places. Along the way, a married couple may have to discard some of the proverbial baggage from the past, acquire new bags and repack. A marriage is a journey of mutual wonder when the suitcase is packed with the attributes of a loving relationship, with virtues such as patience, kindness, humility, and selflessness.

"Tying the knot"
During my year of weddings, I learned that the knot is a traditional symbol of marriage. Thus, the expression, “tying the knot” has become a colloquial way of saying that someone is getting married. At one of our weddings, the minister symbolically bound the couple together by placing a sash over their wrists, and saying, “What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.”

"Double Heart Shaped Silver Rope Tied" 

A well-tied knot fastens things together and is difficult to undo. A couple joined together in marriage is a bit like two pieces of rope knotted together. The two become one, while retaining their individuality. The knot is a symbol of unity and of the exclusive relationship of marriage.

A house built on rock
Rocks (not the sparkly variety) became the predominant symbol for another one of our weddings. Rocks are essential elements in construction. When hewn into blocks, rocks become cornerstones. Rocks, in the form of gravel, are an integral component of the concrete used in foundations. Rocks form walls that provide stability against erosion, and give shape to gardens and landscapes. The solid and enduring nature of a rock makes it an excellent symbol for the commitment required of marriage.

For one of the readings at this wedding, the couple had chosen a parable from the Gospel of Matthew. A wise man builds his house on rock, so when the storms come and beat against the walls of the house, the house remains intact. A good marriage is like a house built on rock. As the pastor at this wedding remarked, there are three rocks that are essential for a life-giving marriage: trust, forgiveness, and fidelity.

In what was surely an inspired moment, a family member brought three rocks, labeled “trust”, “forgiveness”, and “fidelity” respectively, to the reception, and invited everyone to sign a rock. The rock that quickly became crowded with names was “forgiveness”. Maybe this was due to the comment that “there is no love without forgiveness,” or maybe the desire for forgiveness resonates with our experience of relationship.

These rocks are a visual reminder of the promises the couple made on their wedding day. The sincere attempt to live their promises will help them to weather the storms that life offers up.

Departure and destination: wedding and marriage
In a perfect world, every marriage would be built on mutual patience, kindness, humility and respect, and every couple would be perfect soul mates. Alas, we live in an imperfect world, where sometimes the rigors of the journey, and the baggage that we pack around with us, erode the beauty of the relationship that a couple embraces on their wedding day.

The three symbols in my year of weddings, the knot, the rocks, and the suitcase, remind me that the wedding day is an exciting point of departure. The destination is the sincere attempt to live the vows over the course of the journey. With a securely fastened suitcase that includes trust, forgiveness, and fidelity, the couple is well on their way.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Join the conversation in a respectful way, please

I would be exaggerating if I called it “hate mail”, but a recent email from a reader was definitely on the nasty side.  The reader was emailing me in response to a column I had written on using inclusive language to speak about God. After quoting from the creation of man in the Book of Genesis, the writer of the email commanded me to give up my opinions. While I thought this was rather imperious of him, and demonstrated a false notion of moral superiority, his email illustrated one of the points of my column: “androcentric language for God perpetuates the stereotype of male superiority”.  

I appreciate reader feedback, even when a reader disagrees with my point of view. I enjoy hearing different opinions; they make me think about my own.  Generally, when readers contact me with an opinion, they are interested in sharing ideas in a respectful manner. They know what I think from reading my column, and I get to know what they think from reading their emails. 

Promoting conversation through mutual respect
"Global Communication"
The respectful exchange of ideas promotes conversation. Through conversation, we moderate our attitudes, and reevaluate our opinions.  Through conversation, we develop a broader understanding of issues, of the world, and of our place in the world.

The media often invites us to “join the conversation”; we can post our thoughts online and comment on the opinions of others. Frequently, in these online “conversations”, people express intolerance for the opinions of others, and comments are sarcastic and insulting. The public discourse that social media seeks to encourage often ends up being little more than people spouting off in an attempt to foist their views on others.

If I learned anything from raising teenagers, the quickest way to shut down communication is to claim moral superiority on a position, and adopt a “my way or the highway” attitude.  A consistent application of the “my way or the highway” style of communication effectively limits one’s own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth, and does nothing to create meaningful dialogue.

Meaningful conversation requires that we remain open to worldviews, beliefs and opinions that differ from our own.   When we are willing to listen and consider different points of view, conversation becomes a tool that promotes individual growth, and fosters the advancement of human society.  Communication occurs when persons exchange views with civility and tolerance.

Debate or dialogue?
An example of what I consider to be a good conversation took place earlier this year at Oxford University. Oxford hosted what was billed as a debate between Richard Dawkins, often described as the world’s most famous atheist, and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who described himself as agnostic, chaired the discussion.

The topic for the event was "The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin."  Given the disparity between their beliefs, and the strength of their convictions, I expected to see a political style debate between Dawkins and Williams. I expected a contest, and as with all contests, I expected someone to emerge as the winner. Of course, given my own belief in God, I was hoping that the Archbishop would be more the persuasive of the two.

My expectations and hope, however, never materialized.  The event was less of a debate, and more of a conversation. Neither party attempted to prove the other wrong, or to persuade the other with scientific argument or Christian apologetics, respectively. Instead, the men exchanged ideas, and during the exchange they found points of agreement. Notably absent from the demeanor of the participants was any sense of moral superiority. Both appeared to be conscious of their own limitations, and the limitations of human understanding when confronted with the secrets of science, and the mysteries of faith.  The men, and the audience, shared a genuine desire to learn. The mutual respect and humility of the participants engendered an intellectually and spiritually stimulating conversation that came to its conclusion all too quickly. 

"Meeting Room"
The best conversations continue long after the participants have gone home and the room has fallen silent.  Unlike online conversations where comments are “closed” and removed, and unlike emails that can be quickly deleted, we archive ideas from good conversations in our mind. The best conversations are useful tools that aid us in our quest for understanding and meaning; they influence us in ways that sarcasm, intolerance, and just plain nastiness never will.

Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos
"Global Communication" by digitalart
"Meeting Room" by sixninepixels